Friday, December 3, 2010

The Downsides of Travel

When people hear about all the places I've been, a common response is usually, "Oh, I wish I would have gotten that chance. You're so lucky!" While I do appreciate all the opportunities I've been blessed with throughout my life, sometimes I wish people would stop treating my circumstances as some dumb strokes of luck that landed into my lap. The result of my life has been a culmination of choices where I consciously took the most difficult route on the sole basis to challenge myself.

An ongoing existential debate is whether our current realities are dictated by choice or fate. Do we have a stake on the outcomes of our lives or are we all predetermined to an unforeseen destination? Like any wavering 26 yr old, I choose to take the middle ground. I am of the strong belief that fate presents us with the doors of opportunity, but only you and you alone can make yourself walk through them.

The earliest genesis of my travel experience dates back to when I made the voluntary choice to enroll in the Honors Program of the Sociology Department, simply driven by the principle that it would make my academic studies more difficult. From that, my name appeared in a database of eligible Sociology students to be employed on a nationally funded research project. I spent 2.5 years filing through thousands of census records in pursuit of determining whether or not social characteristics affected the likelihood of blacks being lynched in the late 1800s. This work allowed an opportunity to earn a Mary Gates Research Scholarship, which eventually funded my first trip abroad to Spain. During those three months, I caught the travel bug to motivate me towards any other outlets of travel, and because of my Honors status with the University, I was eligible for the Bonderman Travel Fellowship - a grant that permitted 1.5 years of globetrotting and the basis of my Fulbright proposal in Brazil, leaving me where I am today.

But as transformative as traveling can be, I think people have a misconception that somehow transformation is easy, romanticizing the end product without considering the massive amount of shit you have to go through to get there. It comes with a lot of disappointments and failures, a lot of sacrifices and heartbreak. Many good relationships have been broken from my traveling. I created distance with old companions due to my shifting perspectives, missed the wedding of one my closest friends when I was in Guatemala, and because I chose to leave and explore the world, I lost an amazing woman that I still think about everyday. I'd say that 90% of those 18 months traveling in Latin America I spent depressed, constantly questioning my adequacy in the world, and always feeling this overwhelming sense of fear each time I departed for a new destination.

Now to some people, this may sound like some real bitching over some spilled milk. (For Godssakes, you were traveling!) But to be fair, nobody else was on that journey with me. I didn't spend the majority of my time in party hostels or sightseeing the major attractions of each country. In fact, I felt incredibly guilty whenever I took a moment to enjoy myself. Instead I spent nearly every moment in the boxing gyms, in uncomfortable situations that beat me physically and emotionally. I went home every night angry at the state of the world, unable to accept the incomprehension I had witnessed that day and worried about the day that was to follow. But for some reason, I just kept going back. I don't necessarily know why I did, I just felt something innately discomforting with the way most people travel. There was something worthwhile in exploring the emotional places that few people venture, something more valuable than what any guidebook or tourist attraction could give me.

Most people have called me a "negative person", a real pessimist because I choose to acknowledge the afflictions in the world. While I do believe it is harmful to allow suffering consume you into a bitter person, I also believe it is incredibly selfish to completely ignore these things just because they make you uncomfortable. Quite frankly, I think I've reached a point in my life where I know myself well enough to vocalize my beliefs and those who disagree can either discuss, ignore, or go fuck themselves.

However, my point isn't trash the beliefs of others or to stroke the ego of my accomplishments, but just to say that it always pays off to take a challenge. It is worth going into those dark places of despair and uncertainty to battle all that is unsettled in your heart. I've recently adopted the belief that you cannot spread peace in the world until you have found peace within yourself, and ironically, finding inner peace is a long grueling process of going to war with yourself.

But eventually you learn to appreciate the pain, you learn to love the struggle. It's just much harder than most people would like to believe.

1 comment:

GirlGriot said...

I really like the different ways you move through this post. I think of my travel experiences in a similar way. I'm about to jump into the void and take on an exciting and frightening challenge in my work life that I've been doubting my readiness for. Your post, like a gentle-but-necessary dope-slap to the head, reminds me that I like those leaps of faith, like pushing myself outside of my safe places. Thanks, Nick!